The Agile Executive

Making Agile Work

Your Battle of the Somme

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The 1916 Battle of the Somme is considered to be a disaster of the first order in the annals of British military history. By the end of the first day on the Somme, the butcher’s bill amounted to 60,000 British casualties. When the offensive tapered off after four and a half months of repeated attacks, the bill grew to 420,000 British casualties. “The thing is terrible”, said Lloyd George – Britain’s prime minister at the time – “and beyond human nature to bear, and I feel I can’t go on any longer with the bloody business.”

The contrast between the meticulously prepared battle plan on the one hand, and  the meager results the offensive achieved on the other hand, has been the subject of numerous studies since WWI. One of the most important factors that emerged in years and years of research is the lack of timely feedback. Front line troops did not have the means to report their situation to the immense military machine behind that was supposed to support them. As a result, combined arm tactics collapsed. For example, the rigid fire-plan for the rolling artillery fire dictated moving the barrage forward at a predetermined pace. The pace, arguably, had taken into account a realistic rate of progress by the infantry. As the British infantry in most cases got bogged down fairly quickly, after a short while it lost the benefit of close artillery support. Highly inspired that the British infantry was, courage under fire only led to astronomical casualties.

It is easy to attribute the blame to inadequate communication technology. After all, a few cell phones would have made quite a difference. Tempting that such attribution is, it ignores a deeper truth – the people over process truth.

The vast majority of British troops in 1916 consisted of “Kitchener armies” – citizen soldiers who came to the flag to replace the regular British army that got decimated in the first few months of the war. Though trained for battle during 1915 and the first half of 1916, the inexperienced troops were not trusted by the general staff that toiled to prepare a magnificent battle to end the war. The battle plan mandated  moving forward upright and in straight line, wave after wave. The perceived “danger” of the troops taking cover and not restarting the advance once they had laid down precluded any tactical initiative and flexibility.

Fast forward to software engineering today. I can certainly appreciate the complexities and risks involved in moving from Waterfall model to Agile software development. For example, your teams might not be sufficiently trained and coached in Agile methods. Naturally, you do not want to change the software process before a certain level of competence using Agile processes has been attained. At Digital Equipment Corporation we used to call it the monkey on the tree phenomenon. Tempting that a new branch on the tree might be, a monkey does not hop over from one branch to another if the prospect of falling down between the two branches is high.

Various obstacles to starting an Agile roll-out, let alone an enterprise level Agile roll-out, could indeed be standing in your way. I would, however, encourage you to pay special attention to your deeper feelings with respect to your “troops”. In your heart of hearts, do you really trust your troops? Do you believe requirements should be dynamically moved between release and backlog in response to the latest insights gained in the trenches? Do you expect product innovation to come from repeated experimentation at the individual team level? Is it acceptable to you to follow the technical intuition of a young and talented developer?

If you have not yet started training some of your product management, development and test resources in Agile methods, I suspect trust, and her twin brother control, might be the core issues you or your company are wrestling with.

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Written by israelgat

January 16, 2009 at 11:50 am

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